I agree with the first sentence of the News-Miner's Sunday editorial "Here We Go Again" about wolf control-the debate is heating up again and it's not simple. But I found little else in the rest of the column that made sense.
Over the last two years, nearly 57,000 registered voters in Alaska signed a petition to once again put the issue of aerial wolf hunting on the ballot - for the third time. Similar initiatives in 1996 and 2000 passed by wide margins. Why is it back on the ballot? Simply because the Legislature and the Murkowski administration ignored the voters and found legal loopholes to allow private pilots to continue shooting wolves.
Those who find aerial shooting distasteful know little about it according to the editorial. I think they know all they need to know - that private pilots chasing wolves to exhaustion and shotgunning them from airplanes is wildlife management gone awry. Many hunters and nonhunters alike regard aerial shooting as outrageous, not merely distasteful. Congress reacted to widespread public anger over aerial hunting in 1972 and prohibited nearly all forms of it, but 35 years later it's still here. Alaska's voters thought they ended it in 1996 and again in 2000 but they were mistaken.
The editorial states that extreme views should not be part of the debate over wolf control. But isn't it extreme to have about 100 private pilots shooting hundreds of wolves in five areas totaling 60,000 square miles, by far the largest predator control program since statehood? Isn't it extreme to adopt programs designed to reduce wolf numbers by 80 percent over vast areas and keep wolves rare for many years? Isn't it extreme to attempt to increase moose and caribou numbers to levels that their habitat likely won't support? And isn't it extreme to target bears as well as wolves by legalizing baiting of grizzlies and sale of bear parts, practices illegal here since statehood?
How many wolves will die in the control programs? The editorial tries to minimize the large number of wolves shot by claiming that only rarely have goals been met. Nearly 600 wolves shot to date seems like a large number to me. This winter the goal is to shoot up to 664 more wolves. In the Tok area alone, up to 322 wolves may be killed. A few wolves here, a few more there and suddenly the numbers add up to a lot of dead wolves. And there's no end in sight as the present control programs are projected to continue for years and new ones will likely be added soon.
The issue of "sound science" or lack thereof is always part of the wolf control debate. The editorial claims that Alaska's wolf control is backed by "Š the science practiced by the nation's most knowledgeable wolf biologists." However, 123 biologists across North America sent a letter of concern to Gov. Murkowski in 2005 and requested that Alaska re-examine the scientific process used to justify, monitor and evaluate predator control. An international association of professional biologists twice sent similar letters and last year passed a resolution questioning the state's science. Last September the sound science issue arose again at an international conference of wildlife biologists in Anchorage. Clearly, the jury is still out on the issue of sound science as a basis for wolf control in Alaska. To suggest otherwise is misleading.
Predator control advocates refer to wildlife initiatives as "ballot box biology" and claim, like the editorial, that the issues are too complex for the public to understand. Instead, they want the Department of Fish and Game to do "Š the job our state Constitution asks them to do." But wildlife initiatives are more about policy than biology and what better place is there to decide policy than at the polls?
Wildlife belongs to all of us, not just hunters. Most Alaskans don't hunt. They want lots of moose and caribou, too, but they don't want drastic control programs that prevent them from seeing or hearing wild wolves in a state famous for its wildlife and wilderness. They also don't want private pilots shooting hundreds of wolves over thousands of square miles in control programs based on questionable science. That is why 57,000 registered voters signed the recent petition and why they will vote for the third time in 2008 to change a policy they strongly oppose. If they prevail will the Legislature, the governor and the News-Miner finally understand their message?
Vic Van Ballenberghe has done research on moose and wolves in Alaska since 1974 and is a former member of the Game Board.